When I remember first seeing a condom, vivid memories of my homeroom teacher putting one on a cucumber rise to the surface. Yet, all I really recall from these classes was giggling with my friends. Now, almost thirteen years later, I ask myself, “Where was the information about consent? About the right way to use condoms? About the benefits of using them, other than to prevent pregnancy? Why are condoms called ‘male’ and ‘female’?” 

We can all agree that condoms are important: they not only protect against unwanted pregnancy, but are highly effective in preventing sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and are even listed as an essential medicine by the World Health Organisation. Schools have improved in providing (more or less) adequate sexual health classes, that include discussions surrounding the many advantages of using condoms as a form of protection against STIs and pregnancy. There is, however, still a lot of work to be done to destigmatise talking about protection and testing, and even more work to be done on emphasising the importance of consent. 

Condom use spans across the full spectrum of sexual and gender diverse people, so why are we calling certain condoms ‘male’ and ‘female’? The National Health Service (in the United Kingdom) website states that there are two types of condoms: “external condoms, worn on the penis – sometimes called male condoms” and “female condoms (are) a barrier method of contraception worn inside the vagina”. The branding of the internal condom as ‘female’ insinuates that it is solely for vaginas, which is problematic on two counts. Not only is this type of protection approved for both vaginal and anal sex, but buying condoms specifically marketed for a certain gender can reinforce certain forms of gender dysphoria.The perception that ‘female’ condoms are made for women limits the potential of this technology to be used by people regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and sex characteristics. Indeed, the name ‘female condom’ reinforces the flawed notion that all women have vulvas and all men have penises. There is nothing inherently ‘male’ or ‘female’ about condoms. Things are, fortunately, improving and there are now many companies working to promote gender neutral condoms, such as Buff Condoms, and the use of ‘internal’ and ‘external’ as names for the different kinds of condoms has become more commonplace.

What I have also come to realise is that not only is the language we use to talk about condoms gendered, but condom use behaviour is also heavily influenced by gender. When beginning to have sex, many of us lack the necessary knowledge and skills to set boundaries and negotiate condom use. Safer sex campaigns in Western Europe have often targeted women in particular to take responsibility for condom use, with campaigns such as, “If it’s not on, it’s not on”. But what happens when you have to bargain with your partner to wear protection? Researchers in the United Kingdom found that 1 in 3 women had been given the excuse that a condom was “too small”, 20% said men have told them condoms were uncomfortable, 16% of men said they reduced sensation or pleasure, and 8% of men said they get wrapped up in the moment and forget. There is a strong body of feminist research that shows that condom use promotion also has to compete against ideas of condomless sex being associated with commitment, trust, and “true love”. Women engaging in sexual activity with men are thus working against a number of barriers to secure safer sex. 

These excuses and findings are unfortunately, not that surprising. Women engaging in sex with men are often tasked with convincing their partner to wear a condom, not just to protect against unwanted pregnancy but also a host of STIs, which have been on the rise in the past few years. This often involves acting assertively, such as withholding sex if their partner refuses to wear a condom, which leads to another conundrum. Not only do women face danger (such as physical retaliation), but being assertive is seen as undesirable for women. Women acting with strength and making choices in sexual relationships goes against the perceived social expectations of femininity that dictates women should be passive and responsive to their partner’s needs. Some men even go so far to engage in what the internet has termed ‘stealthing’. 

‘Stealthing’ occurs when the condom is removed or tampered with, before or during sex without the knowledge or consent of your partner. I think we should call this action what it really is: sexual assault. A study in Melbourne in 2019 found that 32% of women and 19% of men who have sex with men, had been victims of non-consensual condom removal. In the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland, this form of sexual assault has even led to convictions. In England and Wales, it carries the same penalty as rape but is often not treated with the same seriousness. The consequences of this kind of assault are not only physical (such as contracting STIs, STDs, or pregnancy) but also psychological, with many reporting feeling shameful and guilty. 

Researchers have found that most perpetrators justified their behaviour by using misogynist rhetoric, such as condomless sex being a ‘man’s right’, and ‘man’s natural instinct’ to procreate. What is obvious is that ‘stealthing’ is a form of control and power, where one partner feels like their temporary pleasure is more important than their partner’s welfare. While the majority of accounts indicate that this crime is perpetrated by men, women have often been stereotyped as trying to get pregnant (by poking holes in the condom) as a way to ‘trap’ a man. The bottom line remains the same. Here, understanding consent is absolutely key. A person has agreed to have sex on the basis that a condom will be used, and removing said condom, or damaging it, is a violation of their right to bodily autonomy and is sexual assault. 

Interestingly, studies found that men who have sex with men are more likely to verbalise and negotiate condom use, possibly because they view themselves on an even playing field with their partners. Since the emergence of pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, a daily pill that helps prevent the transmission of HIV/AIDS, condom use by men who have sex with men has significantly dropped. PrEP has made condomless sex a much more accepted proposition. Campaigns such as the “Undetectable = Untransmittable”, which refers to the fact that someone living with HIV/AIDS who has an undetectable viral load cannot pass on the virus, has further removed the stigma associated with the consequences of condomless sex, to some extent explaining the lower rates of condom use. On hookup apps such as Grindr or Scruff, there are many people who specify “bb only”, or “bareback only”, a common shorthand for exclusively wanting to have sex without a condom. Historically and in the present day, many people prefer barebacking because it offers a more intimate connection, exchanging fluids and feeling a partner’s body without a barrier. Although having sex without a condom no longer carries the same dangers or taboo that it used to, PrEP doesn’t offer protection against STIs. It seems that negotiating condom use is a tricky topic, no matter your gender identity and expression or sexual orientation. 

I will leave you on a more positive note, namely, that studies have shown that young women who endorse feminist beliefs may actually be having safer and more satisfying sexual experiences so hey, you’re probably halfway there.